Death Penalty for Juveniles

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There are currently 19 states that allow the execution of 16 and 17-year-olds for the commission of capital crimes and 73 people are currently on death row for crimes they committed when they were that age. The U.S. Supreme Court has already banned the executions of 15-year-olds and fewer states now allow execution for all juveniles since that 1988 ruling.

The issue is whether or not executing teenagers is uncivilized and immoral (cruel and unusual).

Should juveniles face difference consequences than adults for the same crimes?

Latest Developments

In 1988 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for crimes committed by offenders before reaching the age of 16, but a year later the court refused to hear a case that would have extended the same protection to 16 and 17-year-olds.

In October 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Roper v. Simmons which challenges the constitutionality of the death penalty for juveniles.

Supreme Court Strikes Down Juvenile Death Penalty

On March 1, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to outlaw the death penalty for juveniles who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crimes, calling the execution of children unconstitutionally cruel. The ruling came in a case in which a teen bragged that he would get away with the murder of his neighbor because of his age.

Background

Christopher Simmons was 17 years old when he was arrested on September 9, 1993, for the murder of Shirley Crook.

Crook's body was found in the Meramec River in St. Louis County, Missouri. She had been tied with an electric cable, leather straps and duct tape, had bruises on her body and fractured ribs. The cause of her death was drowning.

Simmons had a family history of abuse, a possible mental condition, and substance abuse dependency.

The jury who sentenced him was not given any information about his psychological condition.

Pros

Those who favor keeping the death penalty for juveniles make the following arguments:

  • State legislatures should determine whether or not juveniles should be executed for capital crimes, not the courts.
  • Juries should determine the culpability of juveniles on a case-by-case basis, on the nature of the crime and the maturity level of the individual juvenile.
  • In a society, which is experiencing an increase in violence by juveniles, banning the death penalty would remove a much-needed deterrent.
  • What other countries do concerning executing juveniles should not be relevant to the court's consideration of what the United States Constitution demands.

Cons

Those who oppose the death penalty for juveniles make these arguments:​

  • Executing children is immoral and uncivilized.
  • Scientific research shows that juveniles are underdeveloped and immature, particularly in the areas of the brain that dictate reason, impulse control, and decision-making, and therefore should not be held culpable.
  • A high percentage of juveniles on death row have suffered from mental abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, drug addiction, abandonment and severe poverty.
  • The execution of juveniles is expressly forbidden in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
  • With the exception of Somalia, the United States is the only country in the world that still executes juveniles.

Where It Stands

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the juvenile death penalty (Roper v. Simmons) on Oct. 13, 2004, and appeared to be deeply divided on the issue.

The U.S. Supreme Court later voted 5-4 to outlaw the death penalty for juveniles who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crimes, calling the execution of children unconstitutionally cruel.